The Gulen Society as Modern Orthodox- Part One

I am back from Turkey or as they keep telling me I am in the Anatolian peninsula and Turkey is the greater vision of the Ottoman-Turkish Empire. I had a Jewish-Christian conference here followed by a whirlwind tour provided by the Gulen Movement started by Fethelulah Gulen.

The Gulen organization steers its followers between a state mandated modernism without religion or an Islamic totalizing embrace of religion. In Turkey, a country where the public school and society does not teach Islam, the Gulen society advocates a completely secular curriculum under religious auspices and the keeping of the practices of one’s youth. In the US where it is permitted to teach religion in a private school, they only teach secular studies in their charter school in NJ and their private boarding school in CT. They only have a chaplain on campus and one period a week of religion (like the old Episcopal prep schools). With the Gulen Society’s help, they send first generation students to a good colleges and then medical school or other professions. It produces a modernized Islam that keeps the commandments but has little to do with the vast corpus of Islamic works since they do not study them. The only Islamic teaching that they study are the writings of Fethelulah Gulen, who defines Islam as love, tolerance, interfaith and cultural dialogue, science, and caring for others. Numbers of adherents are hard to come by and vary from 500k to 10milion. The Gulen movement is one of the many emergent faces of 21st century Islam and you will be hearing much about them in the future.

The Gulen society is trying to create a modern-orthodox Islam in Turkey. They don’t trust the airlines when they say it is halal and women refrain from shaking men’s hands. (But men will shake women’s hands in a business context.) Women are encouraged to cover their hair. They wear Western dress and push for secular university study and want to blend into American democracy. Their NJ charter day school emphasizes the study of science and that you will get into a good college.

Turkey is officially a secular country maintained by the military. It has a prime minister who is head of the ruling religious party (but a PM even if religious cannot enforce religion or else he will be ousted by the military). The Gulan society is trying to create a middle ground between secular and Islamist and is supported by the police and the businessmen. There is a whole class of newly minted doctors and factory owners who support the movement. Fethullah Gulen himself is in exile in PA since he was seen as promoting religion in Islam, which is illegal.

I am not talking politics, but religion. So limit your comments to his modern religion. Nevertheless I must point out that he was on Israel’s side against the current PA flotilla disaster. I repeat please deal with the politics elsewhere.

Reclusive Turkish Imam Criticizes Gaza Flotilla
SAYLORSBURG, Pa.—Imam Fethullah Gülen, a controversial and reclusive U.S. resident who is considered Turkey’s most influential religious leader, criticized a Turkish-led flotilla for trying to deliver aid without Israel’s consent. Mr. Gülen said organizers’ failure to seek accord with Israel before attempting to deliver aid “is a sign of defying authority, and will not lead to fruitful matters.”

Fethullah Gulen is a liberal hanafi imam when it comes to law, (think of Rav Uziel or Rav Nissim) and he is against the strictures that has emanated from the influence of Salafi (Wahabi) Islam or from the Brotherhood in Egypt. While denying to actually follow Sufism, Gulen is a neo-Sufi- following and modernizing their ideas (Think, neo-hasidism). Gülen was a student and follower of Sheikh Sa’id-i Kurdi (1878-1960), also known as Sa’id-i Nursi, the founder of the Islamist Nur (light) movement. In contrast, Salafi Muslims, for example the Saadis, consider all forms and ideas of Sufism to be Baadah- innovation, changing the tradition, not binding, heresy.

Now for some of the interesting points. Once again, like Centrist Orthodoxy or Evangelicals, the community is linked to success and making money.

The movement appears to be very rich, leading to questions about the source of its money (with the implication that if the money is “bad”, then the movement must be too). The answer seems to be: voluntary donations, largely from rich businessmen. The Gülen network’s organizations – mainly schools, based in over 100 countries – are publicly registered and subject to legal scrutiny. Their members are also highly motivated, as reflected in the fact that Fethullah Gülen was (in July 2008) voted the world’s most significant intellectual in the respected intellectually monthly journal Prospect.

At the event, we listened to the stories of men from humble backgrounds who had after years of work and investment recently become rich; they now supported the movement’s drive for an ethical capitalism. They seemed to personify the argument of the Nobel prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk (in his memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City) that the elite’s cosiness with the Turkish Kemalite military is based on the shared fear that people rooted in or close to the great unwashed mass of urban and rural (and Muslim) working people are on the verge of gaining power- more here

On woman’s issues they are in favor of woman’s equality and entering the modern world but they are against woman’s prayer quorums or female imams.

The Qur’anic verses which insist on women’s equal human status with men really do seem to operate in the movement. The women (choose to) obey the injunction to dress modestly; at the same time, the verse “(there) is no compulsion in religion” seems to operate as strongly on this question as it does in the movement’s relations with people of other faiths. But, as the Muslim feminist Kecia Ali points out, the Qur’an does not propose full social equality, however ‘complementary’ men’s and women’s roles are seen to be (see Sexual Ethics And Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence, Oneworld, 2006).

On questions of globalization, interfaith, and modern vales they are of the same cloth as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks because of their emphasis on the Neo-Sufism to create a vision of love, brotherhood of man, and natural human piety. The Gulen Society’s motto is “All is based on Love.” Rumi for a modern age.

The movement builds on Sufism; they define their Islam with pithy paragraphs like this one.

On the basis of Sufism lies a struggle with the self, a purification of the heart, and a feeding of the soul. This is accomplished with prayers and remembrance, and with increasingly extra forms of worships. If the methodology of fıqh constitutes a fundamental part of Islamic civilization, social mind, worship, and transactions; Sufism should be viewed as the most important manifestation of Islamic spirituality. Sufism is not solely a lifestyle. It is at the same time a special perspective that determines how the Sufi should establish relations with his Lord, with himself, and with the whole universe and all its contents. But this perspective is a perfect worldview in wider and philosophical meaning. – more here.

The Gulen society is not into theological dialogue and they rarely discuss Islam or even mention that they are Muslims. They advocate friendship dinners where you have a evening where clergy of all faiths, along with politicians and government officials meet and deliver fellowship speeches. (They hold three a year in NJ). For example, you can find on the web a speech by Bill Clinton at one of these dinners. They also advocate joint visits to religious sites and religious ruins- let’s bring Jews, Muslims, and Christians to ruins in Ephesus or to see the synagogues of Istanbul. They have contacts with Jewish organizations and are playing an increasing roll in local and US politics.

IF you have any thoughts on their brand of modern Islam, their religion, or their means of interfaith then please leave a comment. If you are coming to preach politics of Islamophobia please go elsewhere.

This post was written before spending 12 days with them, it was modified slightly after seeing them in the field. I will have a follow-up post(s) on their religiosity, and some of the cultural elements brought up by Thomas Friedman’s recent op-eds.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

14 responses to “The Gulen Society as Modern Orthodox- Part One

  1. Howard Sragow

    Gulen’s adherents seem pretty far the triumphalist factions of Islam. Given that part of the strategies of interfaith dialogue is to expand slowly the range of factions with which each faction is comfortable, it would appear that Gulen would be quite a stretch for some Muslims to tolerate.

    Some Muslim factions on the right could view them as dinner partners even more unacceptable than Jews. I can hear some saying, “at least the Jews aren’t corrupting Islam.”

    It would seem, based on your description, that the Gulen faction could be pretty important to interfaith dialogue. But is it possible that their participation could invalidate the dialogue, in the eyes of some other Muslims?

    Or is that just par for any course of interfaith dialogue?

    • They will not be invited to the interfaith table by ordinarily Sunni. Since the Obama administration has recently agreed to work with them on interfaith issues, we will see if they create difficulties for other Islamic participants.

      They have little interest in other forms of Islam, they think the other forms are not suitable for our age. They tolerate them and dont enter into arguments about Islam. They are not modernizing but creating their own universal form of Islam.
      They have aspirations to bring their form of Islam to the Balkans, Caucasus, and Central Asian Republics. They want to restore Turkish cultural hegemony. As Tom Friedman noted two weeks ago, they are currently doing so well economically that they are not looking for equality and acceptance of Turks in the EU, but economic hegemony over the Caucasus and Central Asian republics. They are exporting a new form of Islam in addition to heavy goods and high tech.

  2. Howard Sragow

    So in a sense, the Gulen are just as triumphalist and intolerant as their colleagues in the Sunni world.

    But the strategy of dominance through economic expansion seems to be a good fit for their ideology (intolerance has never seemed a problem for a religion’s growth prospects).

  3. An American Jew

    They struck me as being more of our 1950’s American generation. Wanting to fit in, live in the suburbs and keep a form of religion that is acceptable to all. Their Iftar interfaith dinners and trips to Turkey seem more like AIPAC in the early days before it go so politicized. They are looking for the American/Turkish dream the same way our parents sought the American dream in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

  4. My inclination is to see the prax conservatism of the Gulen as a necessary component of their theological liberalism and what might allow it to function with any degree of credibility.

  5. Fascinating people. How do they expect to transmit religious practice over the long term, without really engaging in their texts more than an hour a week? How will they maintain access to those texts without adequate study of their traditional languages Turkish and Arabic? Or should we expect a swing to the right in the coming decade or two? And if so, what does that say about the possibility – or lack thereof – of making lasting interfaith contributions?

    Separately, I wonder. In Judaism, it is fairly easy to identify some basic practices and beliefs that distinguish between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox. Without getting into details, Torah min haShamayim and keeping Shabbat and kashrut are the major determinants of membership in the Orthodox community, even as there are large fringes of Orthodox affiliated people who do not practice the above three. Even though there are major differences between Orthodox subgroups, there is an understanding of who or what is Orthodox, which kind of works.

    How is the situation in Islam? Do Gulen believe like the Shiites or the Sunnites? Is there, from the perspective delineated above, that great a difference between them? To use Jewish categories, are Shiites and Sunites in each other’s eyes like Sadducees and Pharisees, or like Chassidim and Mitnagdim, or like Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel? How does that impact the Gulen, conidering that they are trying to deny being Sufis? Does this predict a swing to the right among Gulen?

    I wonder in what measure Gulen is Islam’s equivalent to MO for Orthodox Judaism. Is it in their similarity to us, or the similarity in the relationship between each group and its respective tradition? And given that the traditions are different, does it matter whether or not we each relate in a similar way to our respective traditions?

  6. Arie,
    I am surprised at your surprise. Most Orthodox Jews of Western Europe had the same period or two of Judaism and that was enough for them to be part of the geminde kehiloh In some countries, the AIU schools offered a similar model, they created the French speaking traditional Jews throughout the Islamic world.
    And in the US- this approach worked for Episcopalians for 200 years.

    A major part of a separate school is to overcome the sense of alienation, persecution, or need to either assimilate or form identity politics.

    For example – see here on Muslim kids dealing with Islamophobia.

    Islamophobia clearly seems to be playing a role in shaping the attitudes of young Muslims. According to one Zogby international poll, 75 percent of young Muslims said they or someone they know has been discriminated against
    Young Muslims are responding differently to these pressures. Forty-seven percent of college-going young Muslims drink alcohol, while 16 percent engage in binge drinking; 29 percent of Muslim students in New York public schools sometimes use a non-Muslim name to get by. Some have changed their names to Christian names. A small number have joined urban gangs. Some have left Islam and some have become more religious.
    These pressures and the resulting anger may explain why Muslim youth are the most disengaged among all the youth groups surveyed by Gallup when it comes to voting. Young Muslim Americans are the lowest percentage of any youth group registered to vote.
    Almost 99 percent of Muslim children attend public schools. Only one percent attend an Islamic day school. About four percent attend some form of additional Islamic education like weekend schools which are mostly limited to 40 hours of instruction per year. Therefore, the place where almost all Muslim youth are found are in American schools, colleges, and universities

    So now you have me thinking that the way to measure their success is their ability for them to create a safe haven in a complex world- even if it is in different ways in NJ, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.

    The Gulen movement downplays all differences within Islam even between Sunni and Shiites. They dont seek to explain the differences just that they done matter and that they are minor.

    • Yes, I am aware of the existence of such schools in Orthodox kehillot / Einheitsgemeinde /communautés consistoriales, etc.. And I see first hand the product of such schools, both students who attended Alliance schools before the War, and those who attend similar schools today. In fact, I attended such a school for a few months.

      Based on direct observation I can tell you that such a system can work for a limited time, but after a while, it cannot maintain observance; without knowledge and practice, there is no motivation. What does someone who neither knows the order of prayers, nor their halakhic meaning, and who hardly speaks Hebrew, perhaps doesn’t even read it, do in shul? Either he is on a path to greater growth, or he gets bored and drops out.

      Since you describe the Gulen as observant, I would expect that this is a situation that is tenable for a few decades at most. Once the new generation (and in your other post you speak of a 50 year old) cannot read the language of its sources, it either becomes alienated to the right or to the left. Mimeticism alone cannot maintain identity forever in a foreign land / a minority culture.

      • Alan Brill

        That is why I think I have to take their Neo-Romantic Sufism more seriously. My Orthodox analogy may be mistaken. What they spend their time reading, and listening to as mp3’s at work are the saying of Gulan himself. There is a charismatic element. They teach a romantic reading of sufism and of Islam. Sufism as peace, love, understanding, interfaith, purity of the heart, sincerity in what one does. I may have been mistaken to look at the Orthodox practice that flies in the face of Islamic reformers. Rather, I should look at the universal Islam- that has elements of Dewey and Goethe- as key object transmitted. They create an Islam in the heart working toward ethics. Maybe they should be Neo-Reformers who dont get involved in reforming the law and creating new Koranic , rather a group that might eventually walk away from the law? But their current strictness seems to belie that.
        Maybe they are reform in their own way and will support social justice as their Islam. As it stands they give their entire annual zakat to the movement, rumors are that core members tithe up to 20 or 30% of their income to support the movement.

  7. Arie:

    I’m not sure I follow your expectation concerning the generation-over-generation course of religionists that are not familiar with the holy writings, prayers, etc. As I understand the reports, Reform has been the largest stream in American Judaism for several decades, even as its adherents largely do not understand Hebrew. And I know proud Reform Jews whose parents and great-grandparents were also Reform. They neither “moved to a path of greater growth” nor “dropped out.”

    I see no reason the Gulen couldn’t build a similar stream in Islam that lasts many generations.

    • I know many 7th generation Reform who are religiously thriving. But Reform has a reason for not going back to the sources, Gulen thinks they are the full ritual tradition.

  8. IMHO are two questions here:

    1) The Gulens as a modern religious movement, which we can unpack using sociology, history, etc.

    2) Whether this is a viable long term movement. The concern is that second and third generation will either follow Hanson’s law and move towards “Islamicism” or Fundementalism or completely assimilate into something like liberal Christianity or Judaism, once they are financially established.

    I believe that a discomfort that I and others may feel about the Gulen movement is that, based upon our experiences as Orthodox Jews, that many second and third generation Gulen followers will move towards the former.

    However, that might be moot, as prosperity and culturally adjusting has a habit of moderating the more extreme elements of a religion. Cf. Teaneck.

    • Hanson’s law is not generally accepted as applying to the last quarter of the 20th century. There are those who think it never worked such as Jonathan Sarna. And the Jewish application was the return of Jews to Jewish Centers in the 1950’s after their socialist parents rejected religion.

  9. This is facinating to me. I live in Jerusalem, where my best friend for over 30 years is a Hanafi Sunni Muslim who named his first son after me (Yusuf). I have been almost 80 times in Turkey in the last 15 years. I wear a kipa there without problem, and pray in a nearby mosque with kipa & siddur if I’m out and about at Mincha/Maariv times. Without ever having been the object of negative reactions. I have been asked, as I entered, whether I was touring. I always answer that I’m Jewish, need a place to pray, and that the mosques are conducive to prayer. I’m always warmly welcomed. Once, a man at the entrance to SultanAhmet, asked me to stay after prayer and we drank tea and discussed our mutual Faiths for over an hour (till I needed to doven Maariv). I then invited him to dinner, where we continued a very amicable conversation. I find secular Turks less tolerant of religious Moslems, and many Turks positively anti-Arab.
    How does one get contact with the Gulen Movement? Do they have any representation in Israel which could help counter the growing Salafi (Saudi Wahabi) infiltration of formerly moderate Muslims?
    It is wonderful to find that other Jews are furthering dialogue with Moderate Muslims (and there are many such, at least in Turkey and Israel, in my experience). Yasher Koach!

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